Jazz music wafts through chef Paul Qui’s kitchen as he preps for a hectic dinner service. “We put in a record player a couple of months ago,” Qui says. Whether it’s the calming, spinning vinyl or his zen-like composure under pressure (he did win Top Chef, after all), Qui seems very cool for a man about to open five eateries within the next four months.
Qui is head of Austin, Texas’ East Side King food truck and restaurant empire—most notably, his flagship, qui. In September the frenzied openings begin, first with a 12-seat sushi bar in Austin’s new South Congress Hotel. Qui, who was born in Manila but trained in Japanese restaurants in the U.S., says it is the ideal situation. “I can control every piece,” he says. “It’s rare to find a 12-seater not attached to anything and have it be an independent business. It was an opportunity I felt like I had to jump on.”
Also this fall Qui will open two more locations of local phenom Thai-Kun (an Asian street food truck co-cheffed by Thai Changthong and Moto Utsunomiya) and a brick-and-mortar location of East Side King, his Asian-Tex-Mex truck. But his most anticipated opening will be in the winter, when he will unveil a concept in the Faena Hotel Miami Beach—the chef’s first restaurant outside of the Lone Star State.
We talked to Qui about what drew him to Miami and how getting more in touch with his Filipino heritage will prepare him for South Florida’s food scene.
Your new restaurant in Miami will your first foray outside of Austin. What brought you to South Florida?
The opportunity to get to work with guys like Alan Faena [owner of the Faena Hotel Miami Beach], whoʼs very inspiring. Heʼs courageous in the projects that he takes on. I never thought I would go to Miami, but he described the project and his passion for what heʼs trying to do: build culture, or infect culture, and build a district. Those are the right words for me to get on board. Cultural impact is huge for why I love food so much. Instead of trying to just make food or hospitality or a restaurant or art, it’s all of that. And as far as the restaurant, there’s going to be a decent amount of my Filipino influence with a little bit of Texas and definitely a lot of crudos. It will basically be my life experience as a chef.
Why had you never pictured yourself opening a restaurant in Miami?
Just because I never really looked outside of Texas. I had always thought I would move to New York or San Francisco or Chicago…a bigger food city. But then I fell in love with Austin and the people here and ended up staying. I wasnʼt looking for anything outside of Austin just yet. But what brought me to Miami now is it feels like an international gateway, a platform. It feels like it has so much culture. For a while I didnʼt know the Miami scene. It felt like a giant party whenever I went and I just wasnʼt sure.
Will you be incorporating Latin influences to your new restaurant as well?
Absolutely. Between experiencing Miami and its Latin flavors a few times this year and exploring more and more Filipino flavors at qui, it just makes sense. As far as being Filipino, there’s a huge Spanish influence on our cuisine. The Cuban flavors, even the Argentinean flavors…there’s so many Latin connections to Filipino food even though the Philippines are in Asia.
How are you exploring Latin influences at qui now?
It’s about exploring Filipino food. My chef de cuisine has Spanish cooking experience and is Mexican, and we have conversations about what our food at qui should be, or what it is, or what it’s starting to be defined as. For me it’s Filipino, but the more I explore it, I feel like Filipino and Latin flavors are very similar. As far as the sauces, the preparations of food, and even the flavors, it’s very similar.
If you listed out all of the ingredients in a Filipino dish, it wouldnʼt sound like it was Asian. The flavor profile doesnʼt actually fit Southeast Asia. We use soy sauce for some dishes, but those are from the south of the Philippines, where we have a little more Indonesian influences. But for the north, it’s a lot more of a Spanish flavor profile. We’ve got paella. When you think of Filipino food you think of adobo and lechón. Granted every culture has a roasted pork dish, but its only called lechón in Latin countries and in Spain.
Filipino food is still so niche in the States. Have people gotten more interested in it since you opened qui?
Absolutely. Dinuguan is a Filipino dish that most people are scared of because it has pork blood in it, but it’s been one of our most popular items that we ever offered here at qui. For a lot of people these are very new and fresh flavors, at least from what you get in a restaurant. But there are also very familiar flavors. Filipino food just needs more exposure.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. She is based in Texas. Follow her on Twitter: @amshep